California Pesticide Bills on the Move—Again

The California Assembly  passed two bills that would help address widespread contamination of the state’s environment with pesticides like neurotoxic neonics.

A young girl drinking from a large glass of water.
A young girl drinking from a large glass of water.
Credit: Elizabeth Ordonez/Offset

For the second year in a row, the California Assembly  passed legislation authored by Asm. Rebecca Bauer-Kahan to address some of the most pressing pesticide issues afflicting the state. This year, two bills are heading to the Senate, each of which is a product of years of NRDC advocacy. And they can’t be passed soon enough. 

Reviewing Neonic Uses in Californians’ Backyards

AB 363 is an NRDC-sponsored bill that would direct the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) to complete a timely and comprehensive re-evaluation of non-agricultural uses of neonicotinoid pesticides, or “neonics.” Neonics are the most commonly used insecticides nationwide, and twenty years of research identifies them as a leading cause of mass bee losses and a major contributor to the biodiversity crisis.

Increasingly, however, experts are raising the alarm about neonic impacts on human health. A recent study found neonics in over 95% of 171 pregnant women in California and four other states—with the highest levels in Hispanic women. And the problem is growing. After previous data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016 showed neonics in about half of Americans’ bodies, this most recent study indicated an increasing trend from 2017-2021. This trend is consistent with other data showing increasing neonic exposure in deer. 

Widespread neonic exposure presents serious risks. Neonic exposure has been linked to malformations of the developing heart and brain, autism-like symptoms, and other health harms. And because they are neurotoxic, there is serious concern that there may be no safe level of exposure, especially during key windows of neurological development—much like lead and mercury. 

Because of neonics’ widespread harms to ecosystems and human health, NRDC has long pushed to rein in non-agricultural, lawn and garden uses of these pesticides. These uses intensely contaminate areas where most Californians live, work, and play, but are nearly always unnecessary. Last year, we co-sponsored legislation authored by Assemblymember Bauer-Kahan to prohibit lawn and garden uses of neonics—with a targeted exemption to allow uses to combat invasive species. 

This wildly popular bill passed the legislature, but it was vetoed by Governor Newsom. The Governor explained that DPR was initiating a review of these non-agricultural neonic uses in 2023. That would be great—but DPR’s review of agricultural uses of neonics took nearly 14 years to look solely at neonic’ effects on honey bees. California’s bees, other insects, aquatic ecosystems, birds, and children do not have another 14 years to wait for a narrow review of non-agricultural uses. 

That is why we are back with another bill, AB 363, that would ensure that DPR’s review of lawn and garden neonic uses is completed by July 1, 2026. It would also require DPR to look beyond honey bees, and consider risks to California’s 1,600 native bee species, aquatic ecosystems, and human health. After passing the Assembly with flying colors—57 to 16—it now heads to the Senate where it will be heard in policy and fiscal committees.

An aerial view of rooftop solar panels on homes in San Jose, California.

An aerial view of homes in San Jose, California. Neonic use on lawns, trees, and other ornamental plants can intensely contaminate suburban areas. 

Credit: iStock

Closing the Treated Seed Loophole

AB 1042 would direct DPR to develop a regulatory program for treated seeds, widespread and unregulated use of which is driving contamination of the state’s environment with neonics and other pesticides. Treated seeds are crop seeds that have been pre-treated with a mixture of chemicals prior to planting. Adoption of neonic-treated seeds has vastly increased the area of neonic use nationwide and has been linked with massive water contamination in agricultural areas. They are likely the number one use of neonics in California, covering up to 4 million acres.

And these uses are incredibly wasteful. Over 95% of the neonic applied to crop seeds ends up in the environment. 

Here's the kicker: DPR does not consider treated seeds to be “pesticides” under California law. This means that despite their widespread use, treated seeds escape safeguards designed to protect people and the environment from pesticides. 

NRDC filed a legal petition in 2020 demanding that DPR fill in this gap and start regulating treated seeds. But after DPR denied the petition and continued to drag its feet for years, we sued to challenge DPR’s policy that treated seeds do not constitute “pesticides.” That lawsuit is ongoing.

AB 1042 seeks to address this same problem—non-regulation of treated seeds—in a different way. Instead of categorizing treated seeds as “pesticides,” it would direct DPR to develop a separate regulatory program for treated seeds that incorporates important elements of the agency’s pesticide program. 

This critical bill has similarly passed the Assembly with an overwhelming majority, 53-19. Its next stop is the Senate Environmental Quality committee. 

Pesticide treated corn seeds.
A close-up view of pesticide treated corn seeds.
Credit: Getty Images

A Golden Opportunity

Both AB 1042 and AB 363 must pass the legislature by September 14. The Governor then has 30 days to sign or veto them. By passing these bills, California can address widespread neonic contamination and regain its place among the states leading the charge on sensible neonic restrictions. So far, New Jersey, Maine, and Nevada have all passed legislation prohibiting lawn and garden uses of neonics—while an additional seven states have limited neonic use to pesticide professionals. Meanwhile, despite its vision to move toward “Sustainable Pest Management,” DPR is lagging in the non-agricultural space. 

AB 363 and 1042 would catapult California to the front of the pack by ensuring a rigorous review of these lawn and garden neonic uses—and making it the first state to address the treated seed loophole. These are critical steps to protect California’s people and pollinators, who cannot wait any longer for action.  

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